FOXBORO -- Rob Gronkowski saw his snap count jump significantly in Sunday's Patriots loss to the Bills, 16-0, but the number of impact plays he made remained minimal.
The All-Pro tight end continues to be limited by a hamstring injury he suffered on Aug. 15, but he played in 39 of 56 snaps against Buffalo, according to Pro Football Focus. The 70 percent participation rate is a sizeable increase from Week 3 when he made his regular-season debut and played 14 plays, which made up 23 percent of his team's total offensive snaps.
Still, on Sunday, Gronkowski was barely a factor in New England's scaled-back passing game with rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett behind center. He saw two targets against the Bills, catching one for 11 yards and a first down on a third-and-eight play. It was the only third-down conversion the Patriots recorded in 12 tries versus the Bills.
Against the Texans last Thursday, Gronkowski ran one just route, deep in Houston territory, and was overthrown for an incompletion.
That Gronkowski's playing time is increasing steadily is an indication that his hamstring injury is progressing. The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder acknowledged as much after the game.
"I felt good today, went out there," Gronkowski said. "The coaches, training staff and everything, we just had a little plan, obviously, not to go every single play, but to build it back up. I felt good out there, felt good every time I stepped out there. Just got to keep on improving.
"It’s basically just up to me to get back to full speed. I’ve just got to go out to practice and do what I’ve got to do to get back to where I need to be."
With Tom Brady's suspension now over, the Patriots passing game figures to open up, which means Gronkowski -- if healthy -- will see more passes floated his way.
He'll still factor in as a blocker. He blocked on 24 snaps Sunday. But having him at full strength, and having him play over 90 percent of New England's offensive snaps, as he did last season, should give opposing defenses fits.
When Gronkowski is paired with fellow tight end Martellus Bennett, especially, Brady will have two massive targets who are able to out-muscle smaller defenders and out-run bigger ones. On Sunday, Bennett continued his strong start with the Patriots, catching five Brissett passes for 109 yards.
"He’s a great dude to work with, and he’s an unbelievable football player," Gronkowski said of Bennett. "I’m super happy he’s here with us. He’s a great guy to work with blocking-wise and in the receiving game, and we learn a lot from each other, so I can’t wait until we’re both out there at full speed together."
He may not be at full speed just yet, but Gronkowski's increased playing time suggests that the Patriots feel like he's at least headed in the right direction.